Thursday, 4 June 2015

Historically Informed Composition

On the launch of Music Haven's new publication of a completion of Mozart's oboe concerto, K.293, William Drabkin considers the issues of originality in the process of reconstructing music from the past.

To some extent, I’m here on false pretences. My formal tuition in composition ceased nearly half a century ago and was replaced by training in musicology; at best, I can call composition one of my ‘private passions’. I have maintained a life-long interest in the compositional processes of the great Austrian composers of the late eighteenth and early 19th centuries, and have devoted much time to transcribing and interpreting the sketchbooks of Beethoven. Through my study of Classical-period music, I have come into contact with unfinished works the completion of which I have been unable to resist.

Faithfulness to the composer’s ‘style’ is one of a number of ways of going about the task, it is one that suits my training and experience. But there is a problem with what I call ‘historically informed composition’: each time we complete a work, we are adding something to the repertory even if we are writing in an old style; put differently, a newly completed work ought to have something new to say – some measure of originality – if it is to justify a place in a composer’s now-enlarged output.

Haydn himself implied as much when he praised his Op. 33 string quartets (1781) for having been written in a ‘new and quite special way’. Writing a work that merely conformed to what Haydn had already done would not really be new, and in that sense uncharacteristic of the composer: not ‘Haydnesque’ as Haydn would have understood the term. So in writing the outer movements for Op. 103, I had to pretend that I was Haydn, asking myself what he hadn’t done before, finding potential elements of newness from the given material and integrating them into the Haydn with which we are familiar.

With a fragmentary oboe concerto movement by Mozart, things ought to be easier because, in general, the designs of his large-scale instrumental works have more in common with each other than do Haydn’s. And much more survives of K. 293: a substantial orchestral ritornello which – we may reasonably assume – contains most of the work’s thematic material. But the larger problem remains: completing K. 293 as Mozart would – might – have done must allow for the possibility of moving beyond the Mozart of 1778. Writing a piece that ‘fits the style’ of the other woodwind concertos of the period. Merely to provide another Classical oboe work – of which there are sadly too few – is not sufficient justification for a completed K. 293.

In composing something that is, I hope, ‘new’ and not merely ‘special’ for the soloist, I have endeavoured to let the music develop beyond the confines of what we call Mozart’s ‘Salzburg’ years. Certain features, such as the orchestral wind solos in the development section and the rescoring of the ‘horn’ theme in the recapitulation, are features not encountered before the concertos of Mozart’s final, ‘Viennese’ period; and ending of the first solo section, on a surprise ‘interrupted’, is not found anywhere else Mozart’s concertos, though it was soon to be a regular feature of Beethoven’s.

Does that mean that I have attempted to extend Mozart’s life beyond the year 1791? That I have stolen from Beethoven in order to patch up Mozart? That I have awoken a work that ought to have been left to slumber in peace? The questions seem reasonable; the answers can, I believe, be found – heard – in the completed work.

William Drabkin retired as Professor of Music at the University of Southampton in February of this year. He edits the journal Music Analysis and contributes to Schenker Documents Online, a web-based project that aims to bring together the correspondence and diaries of the celebrated Austrian music theorist Heinrich Schenker. His completions of Classical works include two that have recently been published by Music Haven: Haydn’s last string quartet, op. 103 in D minor, of 1802; and the first movement of a Mozart oboe concerto from 1778 (K. 293).

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